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Five Fascinating Facts about Ben Jonson

Fun facts about the poet and playwright

1. Ben Jonson courted controversy on a number of occasions during his writing career. Jonson (c. 1572-1637), the adopted son of a bricklayer, was originally apprenticed to his stepfather’s trade, before going off to enlist in the English army (he later claimed he had killed a Spanish champion in single combat). He started writing for the London theatre in his mid-twenties, and his first play to make a real splash was The Isle of Dogs, in 1597. However, this play – co-authored with Thomas Nashe – made its mark for the wrong reason. The play was suppressed for its seditious content, all copies of it were ordered to be burned, and so it was never printed. Nobody at the time recorded the precise nature of the ‘sedition’ contained in the play, so we can only speculate. In 1598, the following year, Jonson killed an actor, Gabriel Spenser; he escaped execution by pleading ‘benefit of clergy’, i.e. he could read and write so he was allowed to get off with a branding on his thumb rather than a noose round his neck. Jonson landed in trouble again in 1605 for co-writing Eastward Hoe!, a play containing seven lines which King James I appears to have found offensive to the Scots. Read the rest of this entry

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A Short Analysis of Ben Jonson’s ‘On my First Sonne’

Ben Jonson’s touching elegy on his son, ‘child of his right hand’

‘On My First Sonne’, Ben Jonson’s short poem for his son Benjamin, who died aged seven, is one of the most moving short elegies in the English language. Some analysis of this touching tribute to the poet’s young son may help to show why the poem means so much to modern readers. Jonson (1572-1637) was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and, like the Bard, wrote poems as well as the plays for which he is well-known. Here is his poem ‘On my First Son’, along with a short analysis of it.

On My First Sonne

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sinne was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy,
Seven yeeres thou’wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father, now. For why
Will man lament the fate he should envíe?
To have so soon scap’d worlds, and fleshes rage,
And, if no other miserie, yet age? Read the rest of this entry

The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 7

Father Christmas, we revealed yesterday, was J. R. R. Tolkien. But he had also been knocking about for several centuries before the author of The Hobbit wrote down his adventures. Indeed, the merry fellow first turns up in literature in the age of Shakespeare, as a character in a play – and he is the title character of the play in which he appears. But the play isn’t by Shakespeare himself, and it isn’t exactly a ‘play’ at all. Allow us to explain…

Christmas, His Masque is a work by Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Ben Jonson (1572-1637), the playwright who is more famous for writing plays like The AlchemistVolpone, and Bartholomew Fair. A ‘masque’ was something slightly different: it was like a play but with more dancing and Father Christmasmusical content, and it was specifically a courtly entertainment. Jonson’s Christmas masque was first performed at the court of King James I (James VI of Scotland) during the Christmas season of 1616.

‘Christmas’ in the title is, of course, Father Christmas – and when we say ‘father’, we mean it: he has ten children in the play. Their names are Carol (of course), Gambol, Wassail, Misrule, Mumming, Offering, Post and Pair, New-Year’s-Gift, Baby-Cake, and Minced-Pie. (Carol is actually a boy, by the way.)

Father Christmas must have had a fair few presents to buy at Christmas, even for his own offspring! But in fact this early appearance of Father Christmas in literature points up the crucial difference between Father Christmas and Santa Claus – a distinction that it’s easy to forget, since the figures have become interchangeable in more recent times. But ‘Father Christmas’ was originally merely the personification of Christmas (like Father Time personifying … well, time). He wasn’t a gift-giver or magical benefactor of children who’d behaved themselves (that role was reserved for Santa Claus, derived, of course, from the separate legend of St Nicholas).

The play – sorry, ‘masque’ – is usually seen as a ‘trifle’, a holiday show with little substance or broader cultural significance (although its promotion of traditional Christmas values and rituals chimed with James’s own sentiments of the time). This is how the masque begins: ‘Enter Christmas with two or three of the guard. He is attired in round hose, long stockings, a close doublet, a high-crowned hat with a brooch, a long thin beard, a truncheon, little ruffs, white shoes, his scarfs and garters tied cross, and his drum beaten before him.’ Sadly Jonson doesn’t record the colour of Christmas’s doublet, so whether he anticipated the modern red attire usually associated with Father Christmas by a couple of centuries will probably never be known…

Image: Excerpt from Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686). Wikimedia Commons.